A 43-year-old German man who travelled around Portugal in a camper van is now the focus of Scotland Yard’s investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann 13 years ago.

Police believe the man, now in jail for a sex crime, was in the area where the girl, then aged three, was last seen.

Madeleine’s parents Gerry and Kate McCann thanked the police, adding: “All we have ever wanted is to find her.”

Police are appealing for information about two vehicles owned by the man.

The day after Madeleine vanished, the suspect transferred a Jaguar car to someone else’s name.

Madeleine went missing from an apartment on a Portuguese holiday resort on the evening of 3 May 2007, while her parents were with friends at a nearby tapas bar.

Her disappearance sparked a huge and costly police hunt across much of Europe – the most recent Metropolitan Police investigation, which began in 2011, has cost more than £11m ($NZ21.5m).

“Someone out there knows a lot more than they’re letting on,” said Detective Chief Inspector Mark Cranwell, who is leading the Met inquiry.

The force said it remained a “missing persons” investigation because it does not have “definitive evidence” as to whether Madeleine is alive or not.

However, German investigators have classed it as a murder inquiry.

The London police force said the German authorities had taken the lead at this stage of the case because the German suspect was in custody in their country.

German police told the country’s ZDF TV channel the suspect, who is not being named, is a sex offender currently in prison for a sex crime.

The man has two previous convictions for “sexual contact with girls”, according to Christian Hoppe from Germany’s federal criminal police office.

‘Critical’ information

An appeal on German television was broadcast this evening at 19:15 BST.

Cranwell said the prisoner, then aged 30, frequented the Algarve between 1995 and 2007, staying for “days upon end” in his camper van and living a “transient lifestyle”.

He was in the Praia de Luz area where the McCann family was staying when she disappeared and received a phone call at 7.32pm, which ended at 8.02pm.

Police have released details of the suspect’s phone number and the number which dialled him, saying any information about them could be “critical” to the inquiry.

The suspect is believed to have been using a Portuguese mobile phone on the day Madeleine went missing.

The phone received a call in the area of Praia da Luz from a second mobile number; from someone not in the area. They want the person who made this call to come forward.

“They’re a key witness and we urge them to get in touch,” Cranwell said.

“Some people will know the man we’re describing today… you may be aware of some of the things he’s done,” he said.

“He may have confided in you about the disappearance of Madeleine.

“More than 13 years have passed and your loyalties may have changed,” he added.

“Now is the time to come forward.”

In a statement, the McCanns welcomed the appeal: “We would like to thank the police forces involved for their continued efforts in the search for Madeleine.

“All we have ever wanted is to find her, uncover the truth and bring those responsible to justice.

“We will never give up hope of finding Madeleine alive, but whatever the outcome may be, we need to know as we need to find peace.”

Police said the suspect was one of 600 people that detectives on the inquiry, known as Operation Grange, originally looked at, though he had not been a suspect.

After an appeal in 2017, “significant” fresh information about him was provided.

Since then, Met detectives have carried out “extensive inquiries” in Portugal and Germany in order to gather more details about him.

The force said it was trying to “prove or disprove” his involvement in the case and retained an “open mind”.

The Madeleine McCann case: a timeline

  • 3 May 2007: Alarm is raised after Madeleine is found to be missing
  • September 2007: Kate and Gerry McCann are made “arguidos” – formal suspects – in their daughter’s disappearance
  • July 2008: Portuguese police halt their investigation and lift the “arguido” status of the McCanns and another man, Robert Murat
  • May 2011: Prime Minister David Cameron asks the Metropolitan Police to help investigate. A two-year review follows
  • March 2012: Portuguese police launch a review of the original investigation
  • July 2013: Scotland Yard says it has “new evidence and new witnesses” in the case and opens a formal investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance
  • October 2013: Detectives in Portugal reopen the investigation, citing “new lines of inquiry”
  • January 2014: British detectives fly to Portugal amid claims they are planning to make arrests
  • December 2014: Detectives question 11 people who it was thought may have information on the case
  • September 2015: The British government discloses that the investigation has cost more than £10m
  • February 2017: Portugal’s Supreme Court dismisses a long-running libel case against Goncalo Amaral, former head of the local police investigation, ruling that his book, which alleged the McCanns disposed of Madeleine’s body, is protected by freedom of expression laws
  • April 2017: The only four official suspects investigated by police are ruled out of the investigation but senior officers say they are pursuing a “significant line of inquiry”
  • November 2018: An extra £150,000 is granted to continue the investigation. It is the latest in a series of six-month extensions which take the cost of Operation Grange to an estimated £11.75m
  • March 2019: Netflix screens an eight-part documentary about Madeleine’s disappearance. Her parents, who did not participate in the film, feel it could “potentially hinder” the police investigation
  • June 2019: The UK government says it will fund the Met Police inquiry, which began in 2011, until March 2020
  • June 2020: Police reveal that a 43-year-old German prisoner has been identified as a suspect in Madeleine’s disappearance

– BBC